Shatel: 'Special meeting' between rape survivor, Husker football team could help bring real change

Rape survivor Brenda Tracy spent more than an hour Wednesday meeting with Mike Riley, a man she once hated more than her rapists.

LINCOLN — Two security guards stood like sentries inside the Tom and Nancy Osborne Athletic Complex. One at the front door, another in front of the elevator.

“Can we help you?”

Visitors to the Nebraska athletic department on Wednesday were told to sign in and were escorted into the elevator. Access to the Husker football offices, on the second floor, was banned.

Normal procedure? No. This was just for today. A special meeting was taking place.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away at a Haymarket hotel, Brenda Tracy was escorted by two NU athletic department officials to that meeting.

Tracy was on her way to tell the Nebraska football team what it was like to be a gang rape victim.

And then she would meet face to face with Nebraska football coach Mike Riley, a man she once hated — because she felt he had trivialized the attack by giving Oregon State football players a light punishment.

This was an extraordinary day for college football. An extraordinary day for Nebraska football.

The security and escorts seemed over-the-top, until you thought about it. When Tracy told her story a few years ago, she received threats.

Would there be a threat here? Probably not. This was the middle of a hot June day on a lonely campus. This was not Nebraska’s story. Tracy came here upon the invitation of Riley.

But making Tracy feel comfortable was absolutely the right thing to do.

And inviting her to speak to Nebraska young men? Even better.

Sexual assault is a story on all college campuses. It’s every school’s concern. Nebraska’s concern. Nebraska’s story.

Tracy’s story is one that all — especially athletes — should hear.

She was expected to tell the Huskers about the night in 1998, in an apartment near Oregon State’s campus. About the four football players, two from OSU, who allegedly spiked her drink and then raped her.

She was expected to tell them how it felt, to be frightened and helpless. The humiliation of waking up the next morning, naked, surrounded by condoms and trash.

The Portland Oregonian detailed the alleged attack in a story in 2014. Riley suspended the two Oregon State players for one game. Charges were not filed against the players.

Through the years, Tracy wanted a one-on-one meeting with Riley, to give him a piece of her mind, to tell him how she felt, how his punishment seemed inadequate for an incident she says changed her life.

The coach invited Tracy to talk to his Oregon State team, let the young men hear directly from a victim what it feels like, how it can alter the victim forever.

When Riley moved to Nebraska last year, the invitation was still open. Tracy agreed. She would tell her story. She would get to look Riley in the eye.

On Wednesday, the moment finally arrived.

Dan Van De Riet, NU’s associate athletic director for football operations, escorted Tracy to Riley’s office. Tracy stopped.

“Is he in there?” she asked.

“Yes,” Van De Riet said.

“I took a breath,” Tracy said.

This was the man Tracy once said “I hated more than the rapists.” The reason, she said, was you can rationalize what a rapist does because that’s who he is. But it’s hard to understand “a good man doing a bad thing.”

She walked into Riley’s office. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst was seated to the right. Riley got up from behind his desk.

“He said, ‘Hi Brenda!’ and smiled,” Tracy said. “Then he hugged me. He allowed me to cry on his shoulder for a few minutes.”

Riley did not want to be interviewed after the meetings. Instead, he released a four-paragraph statement that recognized Tracy’s pain and strength, expressed gratitude for her sharing her “powerful” story and acknowledged that sexual assault and harassment are “serious issues on campuses across America.”

Tracy, reached afterward at her Lincoln hotel, talked about the meetings in detail. The registered nurse from Portland, Oregon, with long dark hair, stopped to dab a tear once in awhile. But she was together — more than ever.

“I feel like a ton of bricks has been lifted off my back,” she said.

Tracy met with Riley from 3:30 to 4:45 p.m. She said she asked him every question she had wanted to ask, all these years.

“He answered everything,” Tracy said. “Looking at Riley and Mr. Eichorst, I felt like they got what I was saying. I could look at them and feel like they were receiving what I was saying.”

Tracy said the coach apologized for not doing more research into what had happened and finding out Tracy’s story.

“He said he just knew the players had been arrested and the charges were dropped,” Tracy said. “He knew he had to do something. He didn’t consider the impact on my life. He didn’t do any research into it. He said he didn’t know any of the specifics.

“I do believe Coach Riley. I did not feel any deception coming from him. He said if he had known, he would have done something. That that would not happen today.”

The meeting with Riley ended with a photo of the coach and Tracy in front of the football trophy case. Then she met with the Husker football team, for less than an hour.

She didn’t know what to expect, didn’t know what she would tell players. Tracy said she had no speech written or words planned; she was going to “wing it.”

Perhaps that’s why Riley requested the meeting be closed; no one had seen a meeting like this, rape victim and football players. Tracy had requested the meeting be open to the media. But there was no way to know how emotional it would get, what would be said.

It went very well, she said.

Surprisingly well? Maybe, sure. Because even she didn’t know what to expect.

“I felt welcomed here,” Tracy said. “I did not feel any animosity in that room. There was no lip service. Everyone here thanked me for coming. And they meant it.”

When Tracy told the players there was no one she had hated more than Riley, she said, she could see players across the room “turn their heads and look at Riley for a reaction.”

But she told them she hated him no more, and the players should be grateful he is their coach.

“This is real accountability, real transparency,” she said. “I told them, you should appreciate what kind of coach you have. It’s OK to be accountable. It’s OK to say you’re sorry.”

Tracy said she told her story, told every detail.

“Every detail,” she said. “The players were really engaged. I didn’t see anyone on their cellphone. Coach Riley said he had never seen them like this.”

Her message was to empower the players. They, not the administration, have the power to create impact from stories like these. She said several players asked questions. What can they do?

The players had suggestions, too. Release teal-colored balloons at the spring game (teal is the color of sexual assault awareness). One player said the team could take an “It’s On Us” pledge. Another said the players could wear teal wrist bands in a game.

She told them that the few bad apples do these things, but it’s up to the 95 percent of the good guys to pave the way to change and awareness. They nodded.

They talked about the “Team Jack” campaign for Jack Hoffman at NU. Tracy suggested a “Team Jill” campaign to talk about violence against women.

They nodded.

After the meeting, Tracy said, a few players came up and talked about women they knew who had been raped. Tracy was taken aback. The power of this meeting went both ways.

After meeting with the players, they posed for a photo. And then, Tracy said, “we had pizza.”

We weren’t allowed to talk to Riley or the players to gauge their emotions or feelings afterward. But Tracy had a good handle on it. She thought it was a worthwhile meeting, with impact around the room.

“I’m very proud of coach Riley and his football team,” she said. “I think there was really good synergy in the meeting. I feel like they can be a good example in a very dark time for college football.”

She’s referring to the Baylor story, but she knows there are countless others in college football. Tracy is trying to do her part: she has helped affect legislation in Oregon regarding sexual assault laws. She also successfully lobbied the Pac-12 to bar transfers who have a history of misconduct.

“Seeing violent athletes transfer around has to stop,” she said. “Another thing is if you are found guilty of sexual assault, you don’t play again for that team. It’s pretty simple, right?”

If only it were. But Tracy wants to become an advocate, wants to contribute to change. She says every college football team should hear these stories.

And if flying to Nebraska to talk to a room full of young men can save one college girl from being raped? “Totally worth it,” she said.

One day in mid-June in Nebraska. Not just any other day. Maybe the beginning of a new day.

“I believe one person can change the world,” Tracy said. “It might be that girl. Or, it might be that guy, sitting in the room.”

Contact the writer:

Sports columnist

Tom is The World-Herald's lead sports columnist. Since he started in Omaha in 1991, he's covered just about anything you can imagine. Follow him on Twitter @TomShatelOWH. Phone: 402-444-1025.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.